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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Winter Woollies in Riyadh

December 5, 2014
Riyadh December 2014

Riyadh at Dusk: December 2014

2014 may have been the hottest year on record, but try telling that to the people of Riyadh. To look at the clothes some people are wearing, you would think we were in Siberia. Over the past few days the temperature has dropped by about ten degrees. Yesterday morning it was 8C – colder, as I told one local, than it is in England.

Sometimes the temperature goes below freezing, which is hard for some to believe in this country known to the outside world for its hot desert sands. And all of a sudden residents of Riyadh respond to what we in England would see as a nice sunny day by cladding up for life on the permafrost. Ear muffs, balaclavas, thick jackets. The Saudis swap their white thobes for coloured versions – black, brown and grey. In the service stations off the highways you can buy a farwa – a full-length embroidered overcoat, rather like a woollen version of the Afghan coats the hippies used to wear in the 60s and 70s. The south Asian residents, especially those who work outdoors, not surprisingly seem to be worst affected. They wander around looking particularly miserable, scarves wrapped around their heads in a vain attempt to keep out the cold.

And of course the changing season gets blamed for the colds and flu that do the rounds at this time of year. Unfortunately I’m one of the current victims. As I write this I’m sitting in my hotel room trying to avoid flooding the laptop with my runny nose. Occasionally I shake the foundations with bouts of sneezing. Anyone next door trying to get a bit of weekend sleep will have problems this morning. Not that I’m particularly sympathetic. My room happens to be directly facing the nearest mosque, whose huge speaker mounted on top of the minaret seems to be pointed in a direct line at my window. So at 5am every morning I am wakened by the dawn call to prayer. It actually starts a good hour before daylight, and it’s loud. Whether the interrupted sleep contributed to my ailment, or it worked the other way round, is debatable.

One’s hypochondriac instincts are exacerbated by the fear of MERS. This is the coronavirus that has been popping up round the Kingdom and carrying off one in three of its victims. It’s a cousin of SARS, and research suggests that it originates from camels. Since it first emerged three years ago over 300 people have died from it. Hardly comparable with the annual mortality from flu, and a tiny fraction of the deaths from road traffic accidents. But enough to get me nervously looking at the web to check out the symptoms. I discover that those who are heading for the pearly gates usually suffer from flu-like symptoms, but also vomiting and diarrhoea. That’s OK then, it’s a common cold you wimp! And the fact that I’m able sit here at the laptop suggests that for now at least the grim reaper has left his scythe in the toolshed.

Talking about the weather is a comforting cultural norm for an Englishman like me. The Saudis like talking about it too. In the summer there are debates about the cruelty of some employers who force their workers to slave away cleaning the streets and constructing buildings in the midday sun. In the winter we read reports about “unseasonable weather”, though usually that refers to flooding and dust storms. Yesterday we learned that the King has personally donated around $100 million to those affected by the cold weather in the north of the country – not exactly the institutionalised winter fuel allowance that we get in my own country, but announced with more of a flourish.

A friend showed me a video from his home area near Qassim, which is about 400 kilometres north of Riyadh. When the rains come they create huge temporary lakes that enable the locals to engage in their version of inland water sports. The video showed a bunch of guys in a jeep ploughing into the lake at speed, towing someone what looked like an inflatable raft. The jeep became completely submerged, but kept going, while those on top of it gleefully plunged into the water, white thobes and all. Apparently they did something to the carburettors that prevented them from flooding, and sure enough, the jeep emerges from the lake still firing on all cylinders.

He showed me another video taken from the far north of the country showing snow-covered desert. Quite spectacular – rather like how the polar regions of Mars must look from the ground, I imagine. All a reminder that deserts can be very cold places as well as hot. Something that travellers in the Gobi know well.

But when the rains come, the desert briefly blooms. For a short while whole areas are carpeted with green, much to the delight of the camels. This was once the raiding season. Raiding was a ritual sport carried out under strict rules, in which bedouin tribes would pounce on rival encampments, plundering livestock and settling scores. These days, the forcible appropriation of camels is frowned upon, but city dwellers delight in making weekend forays into the desert to camp out, say hello to their camels, and perhaps do a bit of hunting for small animals and birds. If they are sufficiently well-heeled, they will use falcons – some of which cost as much as a Rolls Royce.

Once upon a time these desert pastimes were a matter of life and death. In Endings, Saudi novelist Abdulrahman Munif tells a compelling tale of a village on the edge of an encroaching desert as drought and the advent of city-dwellers threaten its ancient hunting tradition. A while ago I reviewed Munif’s monumental Cities of Salt trilogy.  A great read for those interested in the Arab world.

The Saudis regard winter weather as a blessing, even if heavy rain brings with it flooding, with inevitable casualties. Every year people get swept away when they get too close to the flash floods that burst down desert gullies into the plains. The cities also suffer – mostly Jeddah but also Riyadh, where flood drainage either doesn’t exist or doesn’t work properly. See my recent postcard from Jeddah for more about this. But water brings life too, so it’s not surprising that the King leads the traditional prayers for rain at this time of year.

As for the cold, few people in this country are unaware of the plight of refugees north of the border – babies dying of exposure, families with inadequate clothing and not enough to eat. Most Saudis are generous and charitable by nature, so individuals and the government provide regular humanitarian support, even if they can’t reach all of the millions affected by the vicious fighting.

For which reason I don’t expect much sympathy as I struggle with my man flu. And anyway I’m soon to return to the UK, where my wife will no doubt be attempting to force hot whisky down my gullet – something that doesn’t feature among the many cold cures available in this shivering city. Being a man, I shall of course resist, so that I can enjoy my suffering for as long as possible.

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